Boston – Three academically gifted but financially disadvantaged students recently completed the first summer internship program developed by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB) and their Foundation Scholarship partner uAspire. The pilot program offered paid internships at commercial real estate firms with the aim of addressing an issue that is increasingly at the forefront of the minds of local industry leaders – the lack of diversity in the Greater Boston real estate community. The program was established with the intent of making the students aware of the wide array of career opportunities that exist in the real estate business.
"Over the years we’ve tried to get more people of color involved in real estate and have had some success on varying levels, but not a great deal," explains Greg Vasil, CEO of GBREB. "So we thought the best way to achieve diversity was to create it ourselves with our own "farm team," exposing young people to the industry and to the career and job opportunities that are available to them in real estate."
"The world is changing fast, and so is the whole corporate real estate structure. More and more companies are emphasizing diversity and if you’re not in the diversity ballgame you’re not (going to be relevant)."
Out of town visitors walking into an event involving any facet of the Boston real estate industry – particularly the commercial side – are often struck by the homogenous composition of the professionals in attendance. Most of the informational and networking gatherings are comprised largely of white males, with a handful of women and a sprinkling of people of color, so Boston CRE programs more often resemble a corporate boardroom than the increasingly diverse business community that they serve. And while the number of women at these programs has dramatically increased in the last few years, people of color are still grossly underrepresented.
"The idea behind this internship program was that the demographics of the commercial real estate industry are nothing like the society at large," affirms Mahmood Malihi, co-President of Leggat McCall Properties and himself an Iranian-American. "In the 30 years in my career, the industry has done a pretty good job of expanding the role of women in the industry – although it’s got far to go – but it has not done a good job with minorities, specifically African-American, Latinos, and Hindi. Not in the residential brokerage business, but in the commercial, institutional level – at any event you go to, it’s still awfully white."
But it’s not the events themselves that lack diversity, it’s the business entities that make up the industry – from the banks to the commercial brokerage, architectural, engineering and law firms that serve the real estate needs of that diverse business community. And this lack of diversity has not been lost on the leaders and membership of GBREB "The diversity issue becomes more and more relevant every day," stresses Tom Hynes, CEO of Colliers International’s Boston office (and a past president of GBREB). "The world is changing fast, and so is the whole corporate real estate structure. More and more companies are emphasizing diversity and if you’re not in the diversity ballgame you’re not (going to be relevant)."
To address the issue, Hynes and other past presidents, as well as members of GBREB like Mahili joined with Vasil to develop the internship program that they hope will open the door to a more diverse real estate industry to better serve Greater Boston. And by all accounts, the pilot program was a positive experience for both the students and the sponsoring companies, laying the groundwork for a more robust program next year. The three college-bound young women, Kiana Mendes, Zashira Arias, and Meitong (Mei) Huang, were hired on a part-time basis by WinnCompanies, Colliers International, and Leggat McCall respectively, to do to a variety of tasks for the firms. And while the trio received consistently glowing reviews from the companies, the sponsors invariably conceded that they had underestimated the capability and motivation of the students.
"I would have planned something a little more challenging," acknowledged Kelly Spangler, HR Generalist for the WinnCompanies, who supervised Kiana. "I don’t know if all of the interns (in the GBREB program) were at the same level, but she could have been a little bit more challenged. She could have really jumped into something and been able to accomplish it." Spangler’s sentiments were echoed by Genevieve Hemenway, Tom Hynes’ executive assistant at Colliers who supervised Zashira, and Megan Pasquina, the project manager at Leggat McCall who guided Mei during her internship. Pasquina offers this advice to firms considering participating in the program next year. "It was definitely a positive experience, and if the other students are like Mei, be prepared to give them a lot to do because they are really motivated."
The internship program was created as an extension of the successful Foundation Scholarship Fund, which this year (its fourth) distributed nearly $100,000 in last-dollar-in scholarships to 40 deserving students to purchase computers, books and supplies, and to assist with room and board at the universities. Of the three young women, only Zashira is American-born (her parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic). Mei came to the U.S. from China at the age of five, while Kiana hails from Cape Verde. In the fall, Kiana will head to Columbia University and Zashira will go to Mt. Holyoke, while Mei will remain local, attending Boston College.
Mahili says that GBREB members "felt that reaching out to high school and college students and educating them about what this industry is all about and what kind of opportunities exist would be a good long-term strategy, so that a decade from now, we would have more young people with an awareness of what the industry has to offer."
So did the internships spark an interest in the commercial real estate industry for the students?
While Mei and Zashira say that the experience was valuable in terms of learning what it was like to work in a business environment, both agree that for them, it’s too early to make long range plans. "I don’t really know, because I feel like when I go to college there’s going to be so many new things," says Zashira. "But I know that I could work in an office now." But Kiana had her eye on a real estate career even before she entered the program, and the experience just sealed the decision for her. "I was leaning towards it because I’ve always been interested in real estate, but I thought I’d be an agent," she says. "But as I grew up, I realized I wanted to do something different that involved real estate, to actually create properties. So I was leaning toward it, but now I’m pretty confident that’s what I want to do."
Gil Winn, CEO of WinnCompanies, was impressed with Kiana’s maturity and dedication during her internship, and considers the program’s initial run a huge success. "The GBREB Internship Program is an important gateway for young people who are interested in careers in every aspect of commercial real estate," says Winn. "By getting the students excited about our business, we not only create a path toward success for them but for ourselves as well."